The history of Nepal came into significance after the unification campaign of the scattered hill — principalities under the visionary leadership of King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha. In 1846, Jung Bahadur, the epic figure, emerged to wrest power from the numerous intriguing factions in the Shah Durbar and established an Agnatic dynastical rule for the position of Prime Minister. This colourful, glorious dynasty lasted for 104 years. This regime imported ideas concerning architecture, dress and even administration from far off Europe but in the field of culinary art, they did not stray too far from their homeland.
The local cuisine was influenced to a certain extent by the khansamas brought in from Mughal India, after the loot of Lucknow during Jung Bahadur’s time. Since then, the khansamas and the Nepalese cooks worked in tandem, though in separate kitchens, perfecting a style of fusion-cuisine that has become famous for being unique in its Rana flavour.
A prevalently followed custom in most Nepalese households at that time was that rice, which was the staple diet, was partaken seated on a wooden pirka (stool) or on the floor. The palace kitchens were feudally strict in allowing only Brahmins or same caste persons to cook their meals. One wonders how the khansamas came into the picture in this ritualistic scenario. They were given separate kitchens and sometimes even cooked in tents to perfect their recipes. Food cooked by them was never served with the main meal accompanied by rice.
Meat was one of the main items accompanying any meal, relished by all, even served during teatime snacks called khaja. The number of times one partook of meat would be determined by how sumptuously one ran one’s household. Pork was considered unhealthy and not partaken inside the palace kitchens or dining hall. On the reverse, the wild boar held a very prestigious position on all joyous occasions.
The festivals and ceremonies always brought on more pomp and the menus were more elaborate than ever. The tables groaning under the display of various delicacies. The main ceremony, which totally involves and rotates around food is the Chaurasi Byanjan. This ceremony is still a must during Pasni (feeding rice to a child), Bartamand (sacred thread ritual) and Biyah (wedding). This tradition goes back to the epical story of the Ramayan and the wedding celebration of Sita’s marriage to Ram where King Janak is supposed to have served 84 (Chaurasi) varieties of food at the banquet. The food is usually served in beautifully handcrafted silver platters surrounding one massive platter (thaal) consisting of one paathi of cooked rice, decorated with boiled eggs and dried fish, topped by a bhadrai (grey-backed shrike bird) on top of the mound of rice. The heads of a wild boar, goat, whole duck and fish would be smeared with a preservative paste of mustard oil and turmeric powder and proudly displayed with a variety of other meats, vegetables, fruits and sweetmeats comprising the 84 dishes that the lucky child or bridal couple were expected to partake of.
A very brief Rana history shows a reign of nine Prime Ministers that lived in their beautiful palaces and ran their massive households, consisting sometimes of over 500 staff like well-oiled machinery, there were khardars (officials) who looked after the food section and doled out dry and fresh rations with the precision and organisation of an army ration scale. An important point to be noted is that the meat and vegetables cooked at every meal were always seasonal and fresh. The only preserves were dried spinach (gundruk), and fermented bamboo shoots (tama), pickles (achars) and jams (maruwa), prepared in vast quantities and stored in darkrooms known as bhandars or sunned in the balconies of the houses called Kausis’
Coming to the meal patterns of the Rana households, breakfast was not common if partaken at all. Lunch was the main meal usually had at 10 am in the traditional khalanga or room adjoining the kitchen. Everyone would be seated on the floor on wooden pirkas, served in traditional thaals or chaapris.
A typical meal consisted of rice, dal, meat and a variety of vegetables and pickles. Fruit and dessert followed the meal. Teatime was 3 pm where everyone partook of khane kura usually cheura (beaten rice) accompanied with meat and vegetables and sweetmeats. Dinner was usually at 7 or 8 pm served with a variety of rotis, cheura meat and vegetables. No one remembers snacking in between meals. The everyday meal was very well balanced and nutritious, with special menus for a weak constitution when sick, and heavier rich bhoj menus for days of festivity and celebrations.
(Rohini Rana is the author of The Rana Cookbook: Recipes from the Palaces of Nepal, published by Penguin Viking.)